Man City are the best side in Europe right now – but they’ve f***ed it before. Real have the finest pedigree – but this isn’t a vintage Real side. Then there’s Inter and Milan…
Here’s why any of the semi-finalists will win the Champions league. And also why they won’t.
Why they’ll win it: Because they are the best team in Europe.
That has arguably been the case before and it hasn’t yet been enough to prompt City to claim the big one but now they have so many ways to win. Under Pep Guardiola, they’ve been able to out-play anyone, but on the rare occasion they can’t slice through the opposition, they are happy now to go over the top of them, from back to front, where Erling Haaland, the continent’s most ridiculous hitman, prowls.
Not only have City got different ways to beat you, they are now comfortable in a variety of systems too. Never have they looked better with a back three, with John Stones thriving in a hybrid role. Pep’s latest brainwave has coincided with a run of 15 wins in 16 games – City are turning it on just at the right time.
If City can get past Real Madrid in the semi-final, would anyone bet against them with only one of the Milan sides between Pep and a first European Cup for City?
Why they won’t: This City side are so close to greatness as they chase a Treble. Might the pressure get to them, and make Pep overthink it?
That transpired in 2021 when they reached the final and f***ed it up against Chelsea. Okay, the fact it’s happened once already makes it less likely to happen again, since Guardiola isn’t actually stupid. But if they get over the line in the Premier League and beat United in the FA Cup final, City and their manager will face a pressure they haven’t before.
A favourable final awaits only if they get past Real Madrid in the semis – which they failed to do a year ago. What scars remain from Real’s stunning late triumph to reach Paris last season?
Why they’ll win it: They’re Real Madrid. It’s what they do.
Fourteen times they’ve been crowned kings of Europe and they remain the defending champions. Only Real have won back-to-back titles, as they are looking to do again this season.
City have their stars but Real reckon they have ‘the most decisive player in the world’ in Vinicius Jr. Carlo Ancelotti says so anyway and the coach knows his Champions League onions. Karim Benzema is really rather good too, while everyone – especially Liverpool – know that Thibaut Courtois has it in him to frustrate any strikeforce in the world.
Why they won’t: Courtois’ form has had to be brilliant because defensively Real are not great. And on Tuesday night, they’ll be missing the suspended Eder Militao.
They are third in La Liga having surrendered their domestic crown without the fight anyone might have expected from Real. This is not a great Barca side yet there they are 14 points ahead of Real with only 15 more to play for.
Real’s focus has been fixed firmly on the Champions League since long before their quarter-final win over Chelsea who, wretched though they are, still created chances against the Spaniards. If the Blues had a goalscorer, Real’s season might already be over. While City are on a roll, Real are having to raise their game. Is it possible to turn it on and off, and win the European Cup while showing such flakiness?
Why they’ll win it: Few expected the Rossoneri to get past Napoli in the quarter-finals. The sense was Milan had achieved simply by reaching the last eight, but they frustrated the Serie A title winners very impressively to set up a derby semi. Having surprised everyone by being here, they could yet pull off a shock in Istanbul to banish the memories of 2005.
As Napoli saw, Stefano Pioli has built Milan to hurt opponents on fast counter-attacks or by building from deep. Whoever they face in Istanbul, if they get past Inter, Pioli will have a plan. Which he needs if Milan intend to return to the Champions League next season. They currently sit fifth, two points off the pace with four games to go, so the semi against Inter could define their season. Get through that, with Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez tearing up the left flank, and Mike Maignan having one of his unbeatable days, they could hurt anyone in a one-off game.
Why they won’t: Of the four semi-finalists, it’s logical that the fifth-best team in Italy right now are the outsiders for the continental crown, with Inter marginally more fancied to be the side to cause a shock and bring the Champions League back to Italy.
Leao is a doubt for the semi-final, the pressure ahead of which is enormous. And Milan are hardly in flying form. Though they are on a nine-game unbeaten run, they have won only four of their last 14 matches in all competitions. Pioli is under fire due to the failure of his rotation policy, while the coach has pinned the blame for Milan’s frustrations on their Champions League exploits while admitting his side aren’t in the same bracket as Man City: “This year we’re doing very well in Champions League. After January there was no consistency to fight to win the Scudetto. Only City among the European leaders can still win the Champions League and the league, we’re not at those levels there.”
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 8, 2023
Why they’ll win it: Unlike Milan, Inter are catching fire just at the right time.
They go into the semi-final having won their last five matches. Since drawing at Benfica to seal their place in the last four, they have won all four of their Serie A matches and a Coppa Italia semi-final against Juve, scoring 15 goals and conceding twice.
Inter eliminated Barcelona, who will be crowned La Liga champions ahead of Real, when they came through a tough group alongside Bayern Munich. The main reason they aren’t higher in the table at home is because of their previous inconsistency against ‘lesser’ opposition. In the big games, Inter show up. And Milan Skriniar aside, Simone Inzaghi has a deep squad all available, with Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez in a rich vein of form.
Why they won’t: Inter might be fancied slightly more than their derby rivals but they still have the same problem – they aren’t as good as Real Madrid or Manchester City.
Turning it on for the big games is all well and good but City and Real are a class above the other sides they’ve beaten.
Inzaghi’s squad is deep enough but Skriniar – out for the rest of the season before he moves to PSG in the summer – is a big miss, especially if they come up against Haaland or Benzema in the final.